'Denigration of science is like a rot'

At a campaign rally in Bismarck, N.D., last May, Donald Trump told an enthusiastic crowd, "We're going to cancel the Paris Climate Agreement, and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to UN global warming programs." Despite the fact that over 97 percent of climate scientists attribute our changing climate primarily to human activity, the crowd roared with approval.

Their support is symptomatic of a problem simmering in the U.S. for at least the last 15 years — an erosion in respect for the scientific process. Within the last year, this denial of empirical reality has metastasized into a concerted effort by some to delegitimize and dismantle aspects of our national scientific ecosystem. As citizens it is crucial to recognize this trend, and through collective engagement, work to restore science to its rightful role of separating belief from reality.

On Saturday, in more than 500 locations around the world, including Washington, D.C., rallies and marches will be held to support science. The effort is expected to be a useful next step in raising awareness of the value the discipline brings to society.

Our country is our home, and denigration of science is like a rot. When it takes hold, it puts the entire foundation at risk. Normalizing the idea that some science is a hoax allows other inconvenient conclusions to be more easily criticized, especially those opposed by special interests.

This type of denial traces back to the tobacco industry's efforts to downplay the link between smoking and cancer, but a pivotal moment occurred in 2003. Republican pollster Frank Lunz wrote a talking points memo regarding climate change — which eventually became the core of the Bush administration's disinformation campaign — arguing, "The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate." The strategy was remarkably successful. Once learned, erroneous information is difficult, if not impossible to correct. This is one reason why today only about one in 7 Americans understands that over 90 percent of climate scientists are in agreement on the issue.

President Trump's team has taken this to the next level. Key posts have been filled by individuals ambivalent, if not outright hostile, to scientific conclusions. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has called climate change "one contrived phony mess." EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said on March 9, "I would not agree that [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see." Mr. Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon went so far as to call those ringing the warning bell on climate change "pure scum."

And now the government is targeting research at its source. The White House budget eliminates key programs at the Department of Energy, slashes funding 18 percent at the National Institutes of Health (no institution earns more NIH awards than Johns Hopkins University), and guts the EPA by 31 percent.

If enacted, this budget would be difficult to recover from. Without funding, scientists must move on to other work. Research teams disband and institutional memory is lost. Fewer scientific studies affects society at all levels. Here in Baltimore City, federal climate research has been critical in building resilience against natural hazards. Sea level and precipitation projections inform decisions to protect flood-prone areas like the Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls and Inner Harbor. Storm models provide insight into extreme weather events like the 2012 derecho that killed two people and left millions in our region without electricity. Temperature predictions help quantify the probability that power outages will coincide with heat waves, a deadly combination particularly for our city's elderly population.

Fortunately, Baltimore City tends to take the best available science into consideration during its planning processes. In contrast, Florida governor Rick Scott has put a gag order on the terms "climate change," "global warming," and "sea level rise," as if they won't materialize if we avoid saying the words. Someone should inform the governor that this is science, not Beetlejuice.

Scientists — of which our city has many — have been reluctant to speak out because of fear it might compromise their objectivity. Given recent events, we no longer have the luxury of inaction. When science is no longer viewed as the objective baseline from which decisions can be made, we all suffer. It is upon us to help anyone who cares about our economy, health and liberty to engage more actively with science. Only then will attempts to undermine it be met with just derision, and not a raucous round of applause.

Mike Specian is a postdoctoral astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University and a former Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the National Academy of Sciences. His email is mspecian@gmail.com.

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